Looking for a Crucifixion

Robert Alter

This is a book that makes large claims both for itself and for the documents it presents. ‘The First Complete Translation and Interpretation of 50 Key Documents Withheld for over Thirty-Five Years’, the dust-jacket announces. As a matter of fact, about half these texts have already been published elsewhere, as the New York University Scrolls scholar Lawrence Schiffman has noted, so the rubric would be defensible only if the Eisenman and Wise interpretation were the first to qualify as ‘complete’. Then there is the question of whether many of these really are ‘key’ texts and whether they have been ‘withheld’ or rather, which strikes me as far more likely, left languishing through scholarly indolence. Withholding suggests the deliberate suppression of material that could be ‘explosive’, a favourite adjective of Eisenman and Wise’s. This notion of a scholarly conspiracy, hinted at in the text, has recently been trumpeted by the journalists Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh in The Dead Sea Scrolls Deception, which is largely a popularisation of Robert Eisenman’s theories. Unsurprisingly, Baigent and Leigh contribute an effusive blurb to this book. Eisenman for his part has been putting himself forward as the embattled champion of a campaign (crowned with success a year ago) to liberate the Scrolls from a scholarly monopoly which, he claims, has kept them from the public on grounds of their dangerous contents, which threaten to subvert accepted theories about Qumran, the sectarian community associated with the Scrolls, as well as cherished notions about Judaism and Christianity.

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